Gavin Maxwell lived from 15 July 1914 to 7 September 1969. He was a naturalist and author, best known for his work with otters. His most popular book was Ring of Bright Water, published in 1960. This described how he brought an otter back from Iraq and raised it in Scotland. The otter, Mijbil, was eventually identified as a previously unknown sub-species of the Smooth-coated Otter, since named after Maxwell: Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli. The book went on to sell over a million copies and was made into a film. The sub-species Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli may have fared less well: following extensive drainage of its natural environment in Iraq it is feared to be extinct.
Maxwell was born and brought up in the tiny settlement of Elrig, north of Port William in Dumfries and Galloway, an area in which his family had owned estates for centuries. During the Second World War, Maxwell served as an instructor with the Special Operations Executive, the organisation that drew together Britain's efforts to conduct undercover warfare in various parts of the world.
After the war, Maxwell purchased the island of Soay, off the west coast of the Isle of Skye. Here, between 1945 and 1948, he tried to establish a fishery for basking sharks. The enterprise failed. In Gavin Maxwell's first book Harpoon at a Venture, published in 1952, he puts this down to inexperience and lack of planning. There was no infrastructure in place, and Maxwell had little idea of how to go about catching the sharks. Despite the nature of the enterprise being described in the book, Maxwell established himself as a conservationist long before most people knew what a conservationist was, expressing concerns about the over-exploitation of whales and other animal populations.
In 1956, Maxwell spent time in the reed marshes of Southern Iraq with explorer Wilfred Thesiger. One result was the publication in 1959 of a book about the area: A Reed Shaken By The Wind - a Journey Through the Unexplored Marshlands of Iraq, later republished under the title People of the Reeds. The New York Times book reviewer described it as "near perfect". Another result of his journey was the return of Mijbil the otter to Scotland.
Maxwell set up home at Sandaig, south of Glenelg, on the Scottish mainland. Here he wrote his classic "otter books", Ring of Bright Water published in 1960, and The Rocks Remain published in 1963, to be followed in 1969 by the third in the trilogy, Raven Seek Thy Brother. In his books, Maxwell called Sandaig Camusfeàrna in a largely unsuccessful effort to conceal its location from his many readers.
Maxwell's home at Sandaig burned down in January 1968, and he relocated to the lighthouse cottages he had purchased in 1963 on Eilean Bàn ('White Island'), the island between Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland and Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. In 1969 Gavin Maxwell invited the naturalist John Lister-Kaye to move to Eilean Bàn to help him set up a private zoo there. Lister-Kaye did so, but the venture collapsed when Gavin Maxwell died later the same year of cancer. In 1972, John Lister-Kaye published a book about his time on Eilean Bàn: The White Island.
Gavin Maxwell had married Lavinia Renton in February 1962, but their marriage lasted little more than a year. He also had a long-term but apparently unrequited relationship with the poet and literary critic Kathleen Raine: the title of his book Ring of Bright Water came from a line in one of her poems.
Gavin Maxwell's memory is preserved in the books he wrote, which have an enduring appeal. He is also remembered by the The Eilean Bàn Trust & Bright Water Visitor Centre. This operates a visitor centre in Kyleakin and conducts groups of visitors around Eilean Bàn, visiting the lighthouse, wildlife hides and part of the lighthouse cottage in which Maxwell's "long room" has been recreated. It also rents out part of the lighthous cottage on the island as a holiday let. The island of Eilean Bàn itself has changed significantly since Maxwell's time. In the early 1990s it was linked to both the mainland and the Isle of Skye by the construction of the two parts of the Skye Bridge, which opened in October 1995. Despite this, the island remains a haven for wildlife.